So, Your Pastor Resigned: 7 Things Your Church Needs to Do Immediately

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It’s never easy when the senior pastor resigns.

These days, the headlines are filled with pastors who are forced to leave their church (often because of moral failure), but the reality is that the vast majority of the time, pastors leave because it’s time, they sense a new calling, or they retire.

Even in the healthiest churches, there’s so much on the line during a senior pastor vacancy.

With the age of the average senior pastor now being in their late fifties, there’s a looming pastoral succession crisis that’s only going to get worse.

Even if you think you don’t think you’re going to go through it soon, preparing well for the day when it inevitably happens can help. After all, many pastors leave because they feel they’ve stayed too long, sense a new calling, or simply can’t handle the pressure cooker that ministry can be anymore.

And let me warn you with this: Pastoral succession never seems urgent. Until it is.

Mess it up, and what took years to build could vaporize in a week. Do pastoral succession well, though, and it sets your church up for long-term success.

Here are seven things your church should do as soon as it becomes clear the pastor is leaving.

This article was updated and republished on Sept 25, 2023.Pastoral succession never seems urgent. Until it is. CLICK TO TWEET

1. Focus on Vision: Remind People What Will Never Change

When a leader leaves, it can feel like everything is changing, but in the case of the church, that’s not true.

In fact, a vacancy can be a time to reignite the mission. Focusing on the mission of your church during a vacancy will help remind people why they do what they do. And why is a fantastic motivator.

A few years ago, I officially left the Lead Pastor role at the church that I founded in 2008. Though the hand-off to my successor was planned for years in advance, the mission and vision of our church have stayed the same to this day:

  • Our mission is to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus.
  • Our vision is to create a church that unchurched people love to attend.

During our transition, it’s a mission and vision we revisited both privately and publicly on many occasions.

In a healthy church, the leader might change, but the mission never does. It’s your job to remind the church of that.In a healthy church, the leader might change, but the mission never does. It’s your job to remind the church of that. CLICK TO TWEET

2. Seek Wise Counsel and Lean Into Expertise

If you’re fortunate, you’ll only have to navigate a senior pastor vacancy every decade or two. Which by nature means neither you nor your team is an expert in the subject.

If you’re fortunate, you’ll only have to navigate a senior pastor vacancy every decade or two. Which, by nature, means neither you nor your team is an expert in the subject.

Fortunately, there are resources and leaders who can help.

While it’s easy to think you’ll ‘save money’ by doing the transition internally, a bad vacancy or a poor hire can cost you a fortune in the long run. It’s not unheard of for a church to lose 20-50% of its members and attendees in a bad transition, especially when there’s a gap in pastoral care.

Investing a few hundred dollars in a course and some books is a good start, and for complex searches, it almost always makes sense to pull in an expert to work one-on-one with you. Here are a few places you can start:

If you think of expertise as an investment, not an expense, you’ll see a much great return in the future.If you think of expertise as an investment, not an expense, you’ll see a much great return in the future. CLICK TO TWEET

3. Navigate the Dynamics Carefully and Prayerfully

No matter what circumstances cause a pastor to leave, you’ll have dynamics to navigate.

Sometimes it can be mourning the loss of a beloved pastor. Other times, it can be downright anger and outrage. But human dynamics are just that: human. And they’re as varied as the people who make up your church and the situation you’re in.

Recruiting some of your more emotionally intelligent leaders to help the remaining senior leadership identify and address the dynamics happening is an awesome move.

Transition is a great seedbed for the Enemy to get a foothold. Gossip, a desire to get the ‘real story,’ feelings of hurt and betrayal can all fester during a vacancy. As a result, having clear, honest communication is critical.

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems on paper. Having astute, emotionally savvy leaders at the center of the transition process can be key to a healthy succession.Transition is a great seedbed for the Enemy to get a foothold. Gossip, a desire to get the ‘real story,’ feelings of hurt and betrayal can all fester during a vacancy. As a result, having clear, honest communication is critical. CLICK TO TWEET

4. Help the Congregation Grieve

Even in the healthiest of transitions, it’s natural to feel a sense of loss when a pastor leaves, especially if they have been with the church for a long time. Add scandal into the mix, and you’ve got grief compounded with a sense of anger, hurt, and betrayal.

Allow yourself and others in the church to grieve the loss and take the time to process your emotions. This can be a difficult and emotional time, but it is important to allow yourself to feel and healthily work through these emotions.

Given the emotional state of most people these days, there’s another complicating factor: People carry a lot of unresolved grief. Maybe they lost a parent recently, have been laid off, have a relationship that’s falling apart, or a child they feel is slipping away. While they won’t be able to articulate it, often, someone’s unresolved grief will show up in an unhealthy way at church.

As I’ve argued before, often, 95% of the problems in the church have nothing to do with the church. A vacancy is a great time for that dynamic to show up.Often, someone’s unresolved grief will show up in an unhealthy way at church.CLICK TO TWEET

5. Communicate Differently with Different People

Not everyone in your church needs or wants the same level of information.

You have some people attending your church who couldn’t tell you the Lead Pastor’s full name, others who are so heavily invested they feel like they’re losing a family member, and, of course, the staff and elders. That’s church.

As a result, you should be prepared to communicate differently with different people.You have some people attending your church who couldn’t tell you the Lead Pastor’s full name and others who are so heavily invested they feel like they’re losing a family member. That’s church. CLICK TO TWEET

While the story should be the same at every level (changing what you say depending on the audience is an integrity issue), your deepest dialogue and back-and-forth conversation should be with your core people—elders, staff, boards, and key volunteers.

Often, key leaders (such as staff, elders, and certain volunteers) will get a heads-up shortly before the church-wide announcement but are asked to keep that information confidential until the announcement is made.

The people who are most invested in the ministry should be the people you invest in most when it comes to processing change.

When it comes to the most invested people, the best advice is to be available. Answer as many questions as they have. Reach out. Encourage dialogue. That will help with their grieving and processing, and if you stay on a simple and clear message, their processing of the departure will help the rest of the church process it too.

Holding hands with people who are grieving in a transition is an incredible investment.

Conversely, other people may be just fine with a quick announcement. And obviously, there are a host of people who need something in between.

When it comes to communicating effectively, the deeper the investment, the deeper the communication.The people who are most invested in the ministry should be the people you invest in most when it comes to processing change. CLICK TO TWEET

6. Pray

it almost goes without saying, but in the same way that a transition can be a great time to rekindle passion around the church’s vision and mission, it can also be a great time to rekindle prayer as well.

When I think back to the summer before I stepped back from leading the church that I founded, I think of it as the summer of prayer—not just for me, but for the elders, our core team, and our incoming Lead Pastor.

As much as you’re praying for wisdom and guidance for the church, remember to pray for the new lead pastor and that God would make the path clear to your new senior leader.

Sincere prayer also really helps a church get healthy. Confessing sin and bitterness, and praying for each other can do a lot to heal the wounds necessary to move forward on mission together.in the same way that a transition can be a great time to rekindle passion around the church’s vision and mission, it can also be a great time to rekindle prayer as well. CLICK TO TWEET

7. Set the Stage Well for the New Pastor

The vacancy isn’t just about the congregation and the outgoing pastor. A healthy vacancy process also sets the stage for the success of the new pastor.

While setting the stage for the new leader deserves its own post, a few things can help.

First, it is critical to become clear on who you want and what you will empower them to do. New pastors hamstrung by the past or a meddling board find it hard to gain traction and often don’t last. (In fact, the structure of a church can help (or hinder) growth.)

Second, make some hard decisions during the vacancy. If staff members need to go, having the board or interim leaders take care of that before the new leader gets there can help the new leader get some wins under their belt early, instead of having to navigate really hard decisions in their first ninety days.

Finally, be generous with your new leader. That applies not only to salary (only a few churches routinely overpay, and most underpay their staff) but to the spirit with which you welcome them.

Your tone helps set the tone for the future.Your tone helps set the tone for the future. CLICK TO TWEET

Navigating Pastoral Vacancies Well Can Be Done

By grieving the loss, communicating with the church, and prayerfully getting ready for the next phase, your church can navigate this transition healthily and positively.

And a healthy succession will set you up for a healthy future. Use my pastoral succession toolkit to ensure a smooth transition.

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